Report: Syria bans Iran from using its hangars after Israeli strikes

Highly irregular decision follows meeting between Assad and Putin in Russia, according to Zaman Al Wasl news site, citing ‘well-informed’ source

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)
Illustrative: A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

The Syrian air force has forbidden Iranian forces and their allied Shiite militias from using its aircraft hangars and other facilities on its military bases, in light of repeated Israeli attacks, a Syrian news outlet reported on Sunday.

According to Zaman al-Wasl, an investigative news site generally seen as supportive of the Syrian opposition, the head of the Syrian air force, Maj. Gen. Ahmad Balloul, ordered that the country’s air bases be restricted to Syrian troops alone. The decision was made sometime in the past two weeks, though the report did not specify when.

The report came as Russia signaled support for pushing Iran and other militias away from Syria’s border with Israel, saying only Syrian regulars should be stationed there.

The Syrian outlet, which is generally considered to be reputable, reported that the decision to restrict the air base usage was “affected by” a meeting between Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.

The reported decision also followed a number of Israeli airstrikes on Syrian military bases in recent months, which were directed specifically against Iranian forces and proxies.

A moment before an Israeli missile destroys a Syrian SA-22 air defense system on May 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

During two of these strikes, Israel destroyed multiple Syrian air defense systems that fired on Israeli jets. Last week, a senior air force official said Israel would continue to target any Syrian anti-aircraft battery that shot at its planes.

Israel has long considered Iranian military entrenchment in Syria to be unacceptable and vowed to prevent it, with military action if necessary, out of concerns that Tehran would use the war-torn country as another base from which to threaten the Jewish state.

A senior Israeli official told reporters on Monday that the once stalwart relationship between Damascus and Tehran appeared to be fraying as the Syrian civil war comes to an end.

Assad needed and still needs Iran to fight the opposition forces, but as victory appears on the horizon, Tehran’s assistance is becoming more of a burden and less of a boon. The Syrian dictator is looking to begin rebuilding the country he helped destroy, while Iran’s focus is on Israel and regional hegemony, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran, Iran, on October 2, 2010. (Office of the Supreme Leader, via AP, File)

“Assad gets up in the morning and says, ‘Yeah, [the Iranians] saved my ass, but really? I have to live with them to the end of my days,'” the official said.

The Zaman al-Wasl was one of the latest signs that the period of Iran’s relatively unchecked presence in Syria was coming to a close.

On Monday night, Israeli TV reported Jerusalem and Moscow had reached an agreement to distance Iranian forces from the border area in southern Syria, though Israel and Russia released differing messages earlier in the day regarding the extent of their tolerance for Iran’s military presence in that country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said only the Syrian army should be present on Syria’s border with Israel, suggesting Russia was ready to allow Iran to maintain a foothold in other parts of the country.

However Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a more stringent view, saying that Israel would not accept any Iranian military presence in Syria.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, Avigdor Liberman, center, and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot take part in an honor guard at the Israeli army’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman will travel to Moscow on Wednesday to meet with his counterpart Sergei Shoigu, the Defense Ministry said shortly after Netanyahu’s remarks. He will be joined on the trip by the head of Military Intelligence and other senior defense officials.

Under the proposed agreement, Israel would accept the return of Syrian regime soldiers to the border on the Golan Heights and Russia would guarantee there are no Iranian or Hezbollah forces in the area, Hadashot TV news reported.

All non-Syrian forces would also be expected to leave Syria, including American and Turkish forces, according to the TV report.

The agreement was also said to include a clause allowing Israel to conduct strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

During the meeting between Putin and Assad in the Russian resort city of Sochi on May 17, the Russian president called for foreign militaries to begin leaving Syria in light of the regime’s victories.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2018. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“We presume that, in connection with the significant victories and success of the Syrian army in the fight against terrorism… with the onset of the political process in its more active phase, foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin said, according to CNN.

In a rare show of public disagreement, Iran appeared to reject the remarks made by the Russian president last week.

“No one can force Iran to do anything,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said, according to the Tasnim news website.

“As long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will have presence [in Syria],” Qasemi said. “Those who have entered Syria without the consent of the Syrian government should leave.”

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